J. Hoberman on Ulrike Ottinger’s Paris Calligrammes
PART MEMOIR, part madly collaged Francophile valentine, Ulrike Ottinger’s Paris Calligrammes recounts the seven formative years (1962–69) the artist spent in the City of Lights while cannily laying claim to her place in history.
The Ottinger oeuvre is a combination of epic documentaries, fantastic voyages, and ethnographic inquiries. Paris Calligrammes, which premiered in March 2020 at the Berlin International Film Festival and opened at New York’s Film Forum this past April 23, encompasses them all. Invoking the French poet-explorer Victor Segalen, Ottinger presents her pilgrimage from the provinces to the capital of European culture as a mythic journey. A twenty-year-old aspiring painter from the small German city of Konstanz, she sets off in her teensy Isetta bubble car, its headlights festively painted to resemble owl eyes. When the car breaks down, she abandons it to hitch a ride with five “friendly” bank robbers, who drop her off in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. There, as if by magic, she discovers her personal temple of knowledge in the antiquarian Fritz Picard’s German-language bookstore, “a hangout for Jewish and political émigrés” and one of several German-exile ateliers where she would get her education.
Thus did Ottinger, a living anomaly, born in Nazi Germany to a Jewish mother and raised in the French-occupied territory of Baden-Württemberg, find her homeland. Once arrived, she assembles a delightfully quirky Baedeker, populated by venerable Dadaists and avant-garde icons like Valeska Gert as well as Sartre, de Beauvoir, and the whole sick crew. Using her own photographs and footage culled from sources ranging from the Saint-Germain-des-Prés episode of the 1950s British TV series Around the World with Orson Welles to Jacques Panijel’s banned 1962 exposé Octobre à Paris, Ottinger conjures a gray and drizzly wonderland where Jean Rouch and Marceline Loridan might be discovered deep in café discussion. Isidore Isou declaims, Juliette Gréco chanteuses, Isadora Duncan’s eccentric brother strides the streets in a toga of his own design. In some snapshots, the young painter herself appears as a deadpan participant in various soirees. The voice-over narration, provided by Jenny Agutter in the movie’s English-language version, is mildly droll in the manner of Chris Marker and Agnès Varda’s first-person documentaries, treating each memory as a gift. (Rather than Agutter’s cultivated tones, I’d have preferred Ottinger’s earthier delivery.)
No escaping history. Ottinger has left one traumatized land for another. The massacre of October 17, 1961, in which as many as three hundred Algerian demonstrators were beaten to death or drowned in the Seine, precedes her arrival in Paris, but images of the violence repeatedly flash on the screen. The aftershock of October 17, along with Jean Genet’s five-hour anticolonial extravaganza Les paravents (The Screens, 1964), presented amid “fiery disturbances” in the spring of 1966 at the Odéon-Théâtre de France, is crucial to Ottinger’s formation within French culture, or counterculture. (She recalls the play as “an extremely complex, comprehensive work of art” and “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”)
Paris Calligrammes functions as a self-curated retrospective, with clips from the artist’s later films bouncing off her exuberant, comic-strip-inflected Day-Glo paintings (part of the local Pop-art tendency, la nouvelle figuration). Having absorbed the lessons of Genet, Ottinger ponders imperial France, marveling at the bas-relief-covered Palais de la Porte Dorée, a masterpiece of Fascist Deco—shameful yet exquisite—left over from the 1931 International Colonial Exposition. Like the decade itself, Ottinger’s ambivalence reaches critical mass in May 1968.
Living next door to the Sorbonne, the filmmaker has a front-row seat to the street fighting and is acutely aware of the epithets in play when the student radical Daniel Cohn-Bendit is attacked as a “German Jew.” The turning point for her is the occupation and trashing of the Odéon, the same theater where she saw Genet’s life-changing epic drama. The film ends when, taking what she has gathered from coincidence, Ottinger returns to Konstanz, where she will reinvent herself as the quasi-underground filmmaker whose leisurely, carnivalesque spectacles, such as Madame X–Eine absolute Herrscherin (Madame X: An Absolute Ruler, 1978) and Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse (Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press, 1984), made her, as film critic Dave Kehr once put it, “a one-woman avant-garde opposition to the sulky male melodramas of Wenders, Fassbinder and Herzog.”
Nothing sulky about Paris Calligrammes. Joie de vivre has a jauntier vibe than Lebensfreude. Still, this is not a film a French artist would likely make—too uncool, “a Fräulein in Paris,” but also too coolly critical. Ottinger uses the unofficial French anthem “Non, je ne regrette rien” as walkout music. However well earned, this foghorn blast of soulful bombast feels kinda corny until Ottinger’s final title points out that, singing the song during the Algerian War, Edith Piaf dedicated it to the French Foreign Legion—a discomfiting reminder that the beloved voice of the French resistance was also the voice of colonial conquest. Genet would have approved.
J. Hoberman was a village voice film critic for thirty years and has been contributing to Artforum for even longer. He has completed a monograph on the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup.